The Heartbreak Kid is a war of the sexes comedy that leaves no side unscathed, thanks largely to the combined sensibilities of screenwriter Neil Simon and director Elaine May.
Not that this necessarily means that, behind the scenes, each takes the side of their respective gender. If anything, Simon’s screenplay — in which Charles Grodin’s newly married Lenny falls for another woman on his honeymoon — plays Lenny for a fool, while May’s direction creates ample space for Jeannie Berlin to do a send-up of the stereotypically needy wife as Lenny’s new bride, Lila. Let’s just say that the movie is indiscriminately merciless — and hilarious.
In fact, if anyone is spared, it’s Kelly, the blond-haired, blue-eyed college nymph played by Cybill Shepherd. After all, it’s clear well before Lenny and Lila make it to Miami Beach that Lenny is ill at ease. He likes Lila just fine (I love how they enjoy singing — badly — together), but the prospect of sharing almost every single moment together for “the next 40 or 50 years,” as Lila keeps reminding him, feels to him like a curse.
And so, after a disastrous sunburn that quarantines Lila in their hotel room, Lenny jumps at the first opportunity he (thinks he) sees — the flirtatious Kelly. When Kelly first appears on the beach and accuses Lenny of taking her spot, May indulges in a woozy zoom into the sun, suggesting Lenny’s brain has literally been fried. And that is indeed how he behaves: recklessly pursuing Kelly with pledges of divorce and marriage even though she’s done very little to encourage such devotion.
Shepherd is wonderful in what could have been a thankless, symbolic part. Kelly is guilelessly diabolical, allowing her mere presence to goad Lenny into becoming his worst self. The film’s highlight is a scene in which Lenny and Kelly are out for dinner with her parents, so that Lenny can “lay my cards on the table” with her father (a hilariously indignant Eddie Albert). Watch Kelly’s face, which May cleverly frames between the two men in the background. She’s bored at first, then increasingly amused as Lenny flails and her father fumes. When her father finally responds (and I wouldn’t dare spoil his response here), it’s all she can do to suppress a smile. (The scene — indeed, the entire film — has the slow burn of May’s sketches with Mike Nichols, where the laughs are as much in the pauses as in the dialogue.)
Kelly is guilelessly diabolical, allowing her mere presence to goad Lenny into becoming his worst self.
Grodin brings a broader comic sensibility, especially when Lenny’s faux sincerity whips itself up into hysteria. The descriptive lengths he goes to in order to convince Lila that he’s having drinks with a former Army buddy — “He’s always got a toothpick in his mouth” — get louder and more piercingly pitched. “You won’t forget about me?” Lila responds as Lenny leaves the room yet again. The irony, of course, is that he’s making all of her cloying fears come true.
It should be noted that Berlin hardly plays a one-note shrew. Her Lila is lively and funny, even if it’s often in a naïve or self-deprecating way. (“I put cream on!” she delightedly tells Lenny, redundantly pointing to her heavily dolloped face.) Yet she’s also very tender and even seductive after Lenny gets exasperated during one of their first nights together. And later, after Lenny comes clean in another comically extended dinner scene, she hits notes of real devastation.
Despite this affection for Lila, The Heartbreak Kid ultimately honors Lenny’s determination. The final third follows the now-divorced Lenny to Minnesota, where he shows up at the door of Kelly’s father’s mansion. Eventually the movie finds its way to a casual, non-ending ending, one that seems befuddling at first, much like the awkward, hastily happy finale of May’s first film, A New Leaf. Unless, of course, you recognize that the pursuant, persistent, needy Lenny is now, in a very literal way, Lila. In which case The Heartbreak Kid has wittily come full circle.